Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Afghanistan Adventure APR08

Hello from Kabul, in the 'Islamic Republic of Afghanistan’. I hope all of you and your families are doing well.

I just clicked past four months in country- the time is going quickly. The weather here has been beautiful for most of March and April; 60s and 70s every day- a famous king I can’t recall once commented on the moderate weather of Kabul.

picture above- Team Wolfpack at historic site; Balla Hissar. Belowr, Ceremony General I work with.
My job and the situation here in Kabul continues to go well. My Afghan groups (Presidential and Ministry of Defense Ceremony and National Band) have been practicing for the biggest parade of the year, the Islamic Revolution parade. Picture our Presidential groups getting ready for our 4th of July parades in D.C. I am in the capitol here and it is a very iconic event for this ‘newer’ military and government standing up. Just like ours, these groups represent the best the country has to offer, and also to help build confidence/ pride/ identity in its soldiers and citizens. My team will not be able to make the main event due to space and security but I did make it to a major dress rehearsal with the Afghan Chief of Staff group. The parade was quite impressive.
My position has shifted to an Event Coordinator, Band Promoter, and Tour Guide in addition to mentoring duties. Oh, and don’t worry.. I do more than this also; Team Counselor (it seems), Motor Officer (trip tickets and convoy briefer/ planner) and assistant Signal Guy (electronics operation/ security). Being a band mentor but not a musician I’ve had to play the creative card.. I am actively trying to get a full time US band mentor to work with the ANA, but for now I connect the US ‘in-country’ band (101st Airborne- Bagram Air Field based) and the ANA a few times per month. I plan events for each of them in the Kabul area; concerts, promotion ceremonies, luncheons, and at various bases dining facilities.
Doesn’t sound very tactical or military-like? Well, I still have to get around to all of these places and still always on patrol and on the lookout for Taliban. Not heavy tactical though and this is good because I’m not a ‘Ranger’ or tactical type of guy. We travel around in armored Humvee’s with windshields 2” thick, radios, headsets, full armor gear/ helmets weapons, and a gunner up top. We rotate positions; Driver, TC (Truck Commander- Navigator), and gunner. Aside from the responsibility of creating a ‘bubble’- pushing traffic aside- the best job is gunner – you get to see all around and be out in the fresh air.

I had some adventure this past month taking a night flight in a BlackHawk helicopter- ‘Black Ops’ as they call it- no lights as the pilots fly with NVGs (night vision goggles). I swear I could have reached out and touched the Mtns we were going over. Awesome military might in these machines- something to be proud of.. However-- Only in the military can you be sent on a medical appt [for a bum ankle] to a distant base only to be dropped off and expected to walk a mile with 150 lbs of gear on..!

Kabul Security? We are going through the ‘Spring Offensive’ period right now and their haven’t been many SIGACTs (Significant Actions) fortunately- except the explosion of an IED about a mile from our base that went off while I was talking on the phone to my -- wife! U.S. Humvee’s are armored, tough, and manned with 240’s/ 50Cal’s, and can withstand a massive blast- but you should see what the French and German’s roll with.. If I was the Taliban I wouldn’t duck my head out either.

On a serious note, security is very good here in the Kabul area, and the rest of the NW. There are ANP (police) and ANA soldiers everywhere as well as many NATO coalition forces patrolling and keeping tight security. Kabul is and has always been a more liberal and democratic city where there are many professionals working in Ministries, schools, radio, TV.. From what I hear from my counterparts and news is that the biggest problems remain in elements in Pakistan’s govt/ tribes and drug warlords/ Taliban in the East and South (Kandahar). A complex problem because you have farmers that need to feed their families and 10x the amt can be earned growing drugs- however drugs are against Islam- so what’s going on here?

If you desire some ‘off the beaten path’ history try this country and region. Type in history of Afghanistan, Kabul, ancient Persia, or Bamiyan into Google and you should find some items to go on. Related to this mission try Task Force Phoenix, ISAF, or NATO. What I have found is that Afghanistan is really an ancient ‘melting pot’ of Asian’s to Macedonian’s with great historic accounts from Alexander the Great, Ghengis Khan, and many other empires. Buddhism had a large boost from an Afhan king, and from I read, the actual Buddha ‘stupa’ or statue as we know it got its start here- previously just images were allowed.

A great book I’m working through now is Afghanistan- Companion Guide. Taliban is also great book that covers the extremist group and how they got started (including help from US) as well as much other historic info on the region. I hear very good things about The Kite Runner, Three Cups of Tea, and The Lone Soldier but haven’t made it through these yet. Rory Stewart’s The Places In Between- he is a reporter type guy that is here presently rebuilding historic Kabul; see:
Ok, last book: Understanding Arabs; Afghanistan is not a Arab country (nor is it Middle Eastern) but the culture is very similar- it is a quick read and will give you great insight into the culture of this region of the world.
picture at right and below- the Turkish House; conference center on MoD grounds a.k.a. MAJ Mowers office from my team..

Movies to get acquainted with the area; Osama, Kandahar, and Afghan Stories. Others are Children of Heaven, Breaking the Silence- Music in Afghanistan, and In This World. Searching Amazon I’m sure you can find more.

Overall for me, I like it here, I look at it as an adventure- I do wish I could go downtown to interact with the city and culture. I have the opportunity to meet very diverse people from Afghanis to European and Asian coalition forces to hired help from India and Pakistan. I have made an artist friend who comes to our base on Friday’s for ‘bizaar day’ – I hope to have a basic exhibit on his stuff when I finally get home. My family are all doing well- we are able to talk and email a few times a week- even at times with a webcam.

Thank you for your support and correspondence- aside from all the hoopla I wrote above it still is a great day to get letters and pictures from the great United States.


Add'l Photos; puppies at MoD. Gardener friend.
More gardener friends. Wool 'killim' rug. Kids at MoD daycare. More rugs. Kitchen help at band complex.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

FEB08 Update: Kabul, Afghanistan

Salaam-Alaikum. Chiga Pas? Hello and May Peace Be to You. What’s Up?

Hello United States- Do I miss you.. I also miss my home, Susan and the girls, my friends around town, strolling around my neighborhood for evening walks. Hanging out in my own kitchen eating what I want or some heavenly dish Susan prepared. Visiting a great restaurant back home- let me tell you- they don’t know how to eat here- or at least I haven’t been hanging out in the right places. Driving my own car to wherever I want without having to do a mission brief- and a ‘trip ticket’ from the Tactical Operations Center and without ‘full battle rattle’ (protective gear) and having to be concerned about every little thing along the way..

I miss coffee shops, backyard fire-pits, cycling, and visiting the art museum. Enjoying the variety that the awesome U.S. has to offer. Ok, enough sniveling- life here is decent. I haven’t been shot at and my living conditions and job are good. Many other military folks are in tough areas in Iraq or the borders of Afghanistan so I will be thankful.

In this FEB update I will talk about what life is like here- not just for me but from what I can gather on the ANA soldiers, the Afghan nationals, and the KBR workers.. I will also try to describe my job as much as I can and what the days are like. Spring just clicked in- it has been 60 degrees this week. ---
Love, Not War. I saw this on the side of the bus when I was ‘gunning’ a few weeks back- 110% in military mode- ready to shoot and disable or kill anything that threatened our convoy. This banner conjured many thoughts- and made me think of the many viewpoints a person could have of the military and the thoughts that I have had through the years of military and war. Another statement that continues to go through my mind is one that a neighbor said years ago; ‘Why are you in?’- with more a negative slant to it..

Well, I am active duty military now but I have not been brainwashed or influenced much to lean one way or the other. I will retire soon after this hiatus so I especially feel free to look at things however I want to. I went into this whole thing with the intention of keeping an open mind and taking away any positive elements I can- that’s all that I can get out of it.. I don’t get a special pension- some vet benefits when I turn 62.. One of the good things about this mobilization is the chance to serve my country, but also to experience military culture and another part of the world.

The bus made me think of some of my more ‘liberal’ friends- I’m not sure if that is the best term- and times when I was more ‘anti-war/ military’. It made me think of thoughts and comments I have made about our president, about the deaths of soldiers, the deficit the children of the U.S. will inherit due to the war in Iraq and Afghanistan. Geez, 6 months ago I barely paid attention to the war in Afghanistan. (By the way it is known as The Forgotten War).

The Love Not War slogan was a surprise to see here and especially in English but it made perfectly clear how important the military is. It is one of the pillars of a society- and I am witnessing it first-hand. The other pillars are economy, institutions (incl govt), education, and culture. I may not have them correctly stated- it’s been awhile since I have read about what the coalition calls COIN (Counter Insurgency). These pillars are everything we are rebuilding here and have to be built or the country will fail. Now, if I had my choice, I would be in the economic pillar because I think I like business and marketing better then military concepts- I would rather help them expand Afghan rug sales internationally for example..

Now, I’m trying not to be naive- the military does make mistakes- we may have supported wrong groups at times over the past few decades. Has the U.S. has gotten arrogant..? Maybe our reliance on oil has influenced policy..? Iraq- we may not have had the best plan for Iraq- and knew way too little about the culture- to invade like we did.. But it was not just WMD and President Bush’s decision to invade- the situations here in Afghanistan and Iraq have been brewing for decades.

Love, Not War, well of course, but let’s just make sure our military is ready just in case extremists enter our kids schools. Last comment on Love, Not War- At times people can get caught up in the headlines- I will attest- that at least here in Afghanistan the military does as little shooting as possible- troops are very careful and leadership stresses heavily the positive identification of a threat before engaging.
Life Here.
Kabul. This is one tough culture. When I come home I hope I’m not too desensitized to poor people back home. These people work hard and have lived under tough conditions for decades. Many don’t have anything unless they get out and get it- and I mean nothing-. No charity, food stamps, government assistance. The kids are happy for a pair of shoes- color or fashion does not matter. It is great to see many bicycles on the road- I wish the US had more of them. I saw 3, maybe even 4 people riding on a motorcycle, I wish had my camera out to capture the bicycles and motorcycles out traveling in the blizzards- interesting.
Kabul is a beautiful city with much history- what appears to be a well planned city with great influences from first Britain, and then Russia. The city is nestled in outlying mountains (Hindu Kush range) and the MoD (Ministry of Defense) was planned in one of the nicest locations in the region. Kabul is a more contemporary city like Herat and Mazar-E- Shariff (all in the north), and more ‘democratic’ and mixed in culture then the south. Kabul and most of the area is now quite poor and beat up from three decades of chaos but still has distinctiveness to it which I would describe as Asian and British. This is the capital city and much of the Govt and military HQ’s are here. There is still a great deal of corruption here- something I believe is common in most developing countries when institutions are new and have experienced turmoil- Sopranos style of government. If you need a license or passport, well, it’s all about the money. It does seem like President Karzai and his administration are doing a good job of taking hold of the country.

‘Normal’ coalition military people cannot just go about town- you have to have a reason to stop or go anywhere- so I don’t get to intermingle with the citizens- only those that may work on a base. Luckily my team has a few ‘checkpoints’ and facilities to check on from time to time so we get out and about the city and some countryside and take in some culture.
One such stop is a place called Balla Hissar- an old military fort/ complex (pictured here) on top of a small mountain goes back to the 5th Century. Another one is called ‘Carga’ where the old King’s castle is located- as you can see it needs some remodeling. Some logistics, training and Special Forces bases are nearby.
In Kabul area it seems as though many people are literate but I keep hearing that most are not and definitely not out in the hills in tribal country. Even though people are illiterate does not mean they are dumb- I met some soldiers who could not read that had some very good insight and questions about life in the US and military.
The air quality is terrible- much of the electricity is dev by generator, many homes are heated by wood, and I think in some cases old tires. Many of the cars and trucks here blow black smoke like crazy. On an environmental standpoint, the military is not helping as I cannot even fathom how much we burn for generators and trucks. Every meal we eat is on and in paper or Styrofoam, all plastic ware. The only water we consume is out of plastic bottles- and there is no recycling here.. I had bronchitis a few weeks ago and who knows what effect this environment will have on all of us here.

Ministry of Defense/ Presidential Palace. This is where we go to work most days. These grounds are downtown Kabul, very secure, and the US Embassy and ISAF HQ is right down the road. To change things up or if we have business we have lunch at either of these places. One of the games around here is to get to ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) for lunch, or a large French base a few miles down the road from our base which has an actual German restaurant that is fabulous- come to think of it- this last week we discovered the French DFAC (dining facility) which we can just sign in at that had Brie cheese, great breads, fish and tenderloin, gelato, and wine which of course we can’t drink.. The Embassy is the securest places I’ve seen yet- nothing is going down there I assure you.
The MoD is Afghanistan’s Pentagon- the hub of funding and coordination around the country- troops, bases, vehicles, operations, intelligence. My teams work with security, training of troops, and top level ceremony, and the Afghan National Band. I’m lucky enough to be the lead on the Band and the Ceremonial groups. I mentor the ANA staff in improving their training, readiness, operations, and logistics. The U.S. and the coalition countries pay for I believe everything right now and this is one of the frustrating parts of the job. Officers skimming $ from soldiers and on fuel days witnessing many civilian cars in the fuel line. You have to remember most of these people don’t have the money to buy cars so when they get behind the wheel of one of the coalition purchased Ford pickups they drive like lunatics. I concentrate on Ceremony and the Bands and work with very bright and kind people. And we thank you (U.S.) for the instruments.. BTW, since my last update- many people incl. my mother-in-law Connie, and neighbors Mike, and Piper have sent instrument maintenance materials- Thank you.

Some business this week entailed personnel # reviews, project inspections, facilitating engineer work for a leaky roof at the band complex, trying to get the band another truck. My team is finding the previous group did much of the work for these guys- now we are the bad guys in making them turn in requests, following up on them, attending meetings so that they can get things done. One of the issues I was surprised to hear of this past week was that soldiers for one of our groups did not have showers and were expected to clean up outside before daylight under cold water (it’s winter time here also folks). I had to sick my Lieutenant from Texas on it and I think we have a fix now..

Another project we are working on related to that is a laundry facility so that troops don’t have to wash clothes by hand. We are also trying to fix the ‘sundries’ supply problem as either our teams are not requesting correctly or the HQ is hoarding all the stuff- as I mentioned I deal with ceremony so cleanliness and appearance are big part of our operation. Aside from ‘business’ during the day, we discuss religion, English classes, and the news. Many Afghans watch Indian soaps and some ‘Idol’ show- i’m not sure either Afghan or Indian.

Of course I told you about how friendly people are here and the concept of Chai- this culture operates for Islam, Chai, family, and then food, I think. I am becoming known as the ‘Candy Man’ as I give away candy to gate guards, grounds people, and staff around the MoD. Photo- lunch w/ troops @ MoD.

Camp Phoenix.
This is one of the larger bases in Afghanistan and home to about 1500-2000 civilian workers and soldiers and was established in 2002. Camp Phoenix acts as a regional hub for some training, mail, vehicle mechanics, construction, and transitions in and out for many of the FOB’s around the country. I may have mentioned it’s like living at State Fair Park and it really is- structures are mostly temporary except for some old office building that is the PX (Post Exchange) which houses the barber shop, offices, a small food court with Pizza Hut, DQ, a Green Bean coffee shop, and educational center. We have a Post Office, a large Dfac, 2 computer labs, a sm. Library, a movie room, billiards room, and a nice gym. Laundry is taken care of by a drop-off service ready the next day.

Camp Phoenix is like a small city with necessary services and the military has all of it’s normal functions as well; finance, personnel, legal (JAG), electronics, logistical and operations centers. SECFOR (Security Forces) with gate guards, intelligence, and watch towers all around the post. KBR handles almost all services that the green suitors don’t- and workers from all over the world- the more technical are Americans making good $, but mostly Bosnia, Kosovo, Kurdistan, and other soviet republics where the economies are poor. These folks typically work 12 x 7. Geez I feel bad for many of them- I think I might start becoming the candy man for them too.. It is interesting chatting with these folks and inquiring about their countries. There are local Afghans working here that are led by KBR folks- some are in skills training such as in the wood shop. I met some guys at the PX that were contractors involved in Poppy plant ‘removal’ working in dangerous communities in the South.

‘HA Drop’.
We did our first Humanitarian Assistance drop last week in a remote village way SW of Kabul. At these things the ANA is the face of the operation and we are there to assist with handouts and security. The village was actually on the other side of a small mountain because we have to have some standoff for control. People came in on foot and on donkey and were true ancient village type. I wonder what life is like- what they think about- probably their next meal most of the time.
If you could have seen the shivering kids- one I’d say 5 years old was so afraid- I would have taken him home.. One young guy came in sandals- we found him some boots. I became a runner bringing kids into and out of the handout area- I’d hold their cold hands and try to get them to laugh with my poor pronunciation of the Dari words that I know.. It was one of the best days here for sure.



Photo extra's: Below: Darulamon- Kings Castle and old Defense Ministry.

My favorite vehicle- Russian Jeep.. Maybe i will start importing or approach Harley-D with remaking this and starting a unique line.. Dogs up on Balla Hissar. World sign and chapel at Camp Warehouse (French Camp). Incredible rugs available here..